How much do we really know about our friends? There are always surprises.
George Formby was a British musical hall star who played the ukulele and had a successful career in the cinema of the 1930s, becoming one of the UK’s highest paid entertainers. He was also a motorbike-racing enthusiast.
George Harrison of The Beatles was a Formby fan. The group’s reunion song, “Free as a Bird”, ends with a ukulele strummed by Harrison and the voice of John Lennon played backwards reciting Formby’s catchphrase “Turned out nice again”.
In 1935 Formby made the musical comedy film No Limit starring Florence Desmond and directed by Monty Banks. The plot revolves around a chimney sweep who builds his own motor-bike and enters the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race as George Shuttleworth, speed demon, having “borrowed” some of his grandfather’s money to do so.
Filmed on location for £30,000, Formby performed some of the bike stunts himself, including the scene where his character weaves in and out of his rivals’ machines. At the end of the film, having run out of petrol, Formby needs to win the race by pushing his bike the last 500 yards to the winning line. In the scene used in the film, Formby is seen collapsing. This was real: after doing 15 takes in hot weather, he fainted and a doctor was called.
There is a statue of George Formby in his biker’s costume in Douglas, Isle of Man, where the film scored a great success. But not many people know that No Limit also featured the first (and last) appearance on celluloid of a budding child star, to whom no statue was ever erected but whose memorial, like Mr. Chips, was hundreds of school children.
“Nearly run over – but Ealing’s baby film star liked it!” in The West Middlesex Gazette (14 September 1935) recounts how the child had to stand on a grassy verge while his screen mother fiddled with a pram. The child steps onto the road, almost into the path of Formby’s speeding motorbike… but fortunately it’s a near miss. The “happy, dumpy little creature with hazel eyes and a mop of fair curly hair” lived to tell the tale and the “incident” can still be viewed on Youtube.
In later life, when Alan Scrivener told the story of how he had appeared in a film with the great George Formby, it was taken with a pinch of salt. “But it’s true!” he would exclaim, laughing. The budding child star went on to study philosophy and psychology at Oxford and to teach English at Midhurst Grammar School, Haverstock School, and ultimately the City of London School for Girls. But he never learnt to ride a motorbike.